How bilingualism can benefit your child's brain development
Did you know that children brought up in a bilingual home have been found to show better learning and memory skills? In fact, children who have strong linguistic intelligence when they are young can become better learners in their schools years and beyond.1
90 percent of a child’s brain development occurs in the first five years, and at a lightning-fast pace!2 This means there is no better time to start learning a second language, which during childhood can provide developmental and social benefits3. In fact, long before your little ones first step foot into a classroom, language is developing and the foundations are being laid for a lifetime of learning4.
Both nutrition and parental stimulation are vital in these early stages. According to Dr Wendy Liew, Paediatrician and Paediatric Neurologist, parents play an important role in nurturing their child’s dual language growth, and a proper balance of nutrients in this period is critical for brain development5. Together, both can play a crucial role in supporting your child on their linguistic journey.
“Whilst every child is born with the ability to mimic sounds of any language, by the time they reach about 10 months old, the range of sounds they hear around them begins to narrow, says Dr Liew. She adds that “children who start learning a second language before six to seven years old are more able to speak the new language fluently, compared to children who are only exposed to a second language after the age of seven years. Studies have also shown that learning a second language can help us to stay cognitively healthy in late adulthood.”
Why raise a bilingual child?
Children pick up languages the easiest in their early years; in fact, the Singapore Government is looking to strengthen bilingual education in pre-schools to seize that window of opportunity6. In his 2017 National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in Mandarin, “In the first six years children learn and develop rapidly. Their brains are like sponges, absorbing quickly what they see, hear and feel,” adding that we need to catch that window of development and expose young children to language, art and music.
According to Dr Liew “children who speak more than one language fluently have been shown to have better and long term positive mental outcomes; the development of the ability to think and reason. They are cognitively more mentally flexible, with the strongest effects seen in general intelligence,7 memory,8 attention9 and language.” She adds that “research has also found that learning a language can even change the structure of a child’s brain, resulting in better integrated brain networks, which in turn allow children to learn more efficiently. Learning a second language can be thought of as ‘brain exercise’; with areas associated with muscle control and sensory perception appearing to be strengthened.”
Studying a second language also helps to improve your child’s understanding of their first language.10 Children seem to have an easier time picking up foreign language systems. They can understand the underlying patterns without understanding the rules, unlike us adults who are naturally conscientious of semantic rules.11 Compared to children that speak one language, children who speak multiple are more likely to be better at planning, prioritising and decision making,12 score higher on math, reading and vocabulary tests13 and have better focus, concentration, listening14 as well as being creative15 to name a few!
Children should be eating a wide range of foods to ensure they get all the calories, protein, vitamins and minerals needed for growth and early brain development. Cook with a wide variety from the four main food groups:16
Try to also include as many colours of the rainbow in your diets as possible. The colours on your plate can provide a wide variety of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants!17
What challenges or common misconceptions might I come up against along the way?
According to Dr Liew, “in the past it was believed that if children were exposed to more than one language, it could confuse them and lead to speech delay.18 However, research has shown that there are many cognitive benefits for young children who are simultaneously exposed to more than one language.”
In fact, bilingual children may display social empathy and communication better with their peers sooner than those who grow up speaking only one language.19 The most common problem a child learning two languages faces is the confusion between which languages to choose from when speaking. It’s important to remember that this is completely normal and may carry on later in life – once you’re older speaking two languages at once can be seen as a stroke of genius!20
The most important meal of the day for a child is breakfast! 21 Did you know that children who eat breakfast before school are twice as likely to perform well in tests?22 A nutritious and well balanced meal incorporates all of the food groups including milk will help start the day off right. You can supplement your child’s diet with milk formula, containing important nutrients like DHA, vitamins, minerals and prebiotics. Starting the day with a nutritious, well-balanced meal helps your child concentrate to the best of their ability and learn to their full potential,22 especially important at the start of their linguistic journey.
What practical tips and tricks can I use to help my child become confident?
There are so many fun ways you can set your child on the right path to bilingualism. Why not introduce them to foreign language books, nursery rhymes, CDs and TV shows aimed at young children as a starting point. If you are a bilingual family, ensure one parents speaks the second language as much as possible to the child so they become fully “immersed”. How about labelling all your household objects in the foreign language and practice identifying them together? If your child doesn’t have the chance to learn a second language at home, have you thought about enrolling them in a language class for children?
Looking for minimum stress and maximum fun when it comes to learning languages? We all know that nutrition is essential throughout the first years of your child’s life,23 so why not use food to capture your child’s interest while helping them get the right nourishment. No matter how old your child is, they can have fun learning new words while playing with simple food. Here are some simple fun activities you can try at home using different languages:
- Using your fruit bowl: Can your child name the fruits in your bowl? What colour are they? How many are there? What do they smell like? What do they feel like?24
- Take advantage of everyday activities: While putting together your weekly shopping list, discuss what you will buy from the shops, how many you need and what you will make. Don’t forget to talk about the size (small? large?), shape (long? round? square?) and weight (light? heavy?) of the packages.25
- With its own vocabulary, introducing cooking from an early age is a great opportunity for language development: Children can match pictures to words and start to ask questions inspired by their new culinary experiences.26
Fuelling Their Bilingualism
Learning a new language is no easy feat, the more effort your child puts in, they more energy they need to support their progress. It is vital that you choose a diet that provides a balanced blend of vitamins and nutrients to support their linguistic journey.